Use of death penalty continues to decline in Texas
HOUSTON (AP) — While Texas led the nation in the number of inmates executed in 2018, the use of capital punishment in the state continues to decline, according to a new report.
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said in its year-end review report the drop can be attributed, in part, to prosecutors and the public continuing to turn away from the death penalty.
“The death penalty landscape in Texas has changed significantly over the last 20 years,” said Kristin Houlé, the coalition’s executive director. “Not only have the number of death sentences and executions declined by staggering percentages, but the chorus of voices raising concerns about the application of the death penalty grows louder and more diverse every day.”
In recent years, reform-minded district attorneys have been elected in some of Texas’ most populous counties.
Voters in Dallas County and in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, elected district attorneys in November who have expressed concerns about the use of the death penalty and who appear more willing to promote life without parole as an alternative punishment.
“We think (November’s) election signals a significant shift in Texas, in the way that people in our state view criminal justice,” John Creuzot, Dallas County’s district attorney-elect, said earlier this month at a meeting in Houston of reform-minded district attorneys from across the country.
The coalition said in the report that Texas led the nation with 13 executions in 2018, accounting for more than half of all executions in the U.S. Tennessee was second with three.
But the coalition also said the number of executions in Texas from 2009 to 2018 is nearly 50 percent less than the number carried out from 1999 to 2008. Executions in Texas peaked in 2000, when 40 people were put to death.
In 2018, juries in Texas condemned seven individuals. From 2009 until 2018, juries in Texas sentenced to death more than 70 percent fewer individuals compared to the previous 10-year period.
The death penalty continued to be disproportionately imposed on people of color, as more than 70 percent of death sentences have been imposed on minorities over the last five years, according to the report.
The drop in the death penalty’s use in recent years is most apparent in Harris County, where Houston is located.
Death row inmates from Harris County have accounted for 129 executions in Texas since capital punishment resumed in the state in 1982, more than any other county, according to the coalition.
But 2018 was the first time in four years that a jury in Harris County sentenced someone to death.
A 2016 survey by Rice University in Houston found just 27 percent of area residents supported the death penalty over life imprisonment.
Since taking office in 2017, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has focused on criminal justice reforms and has gone against expectations in various death penalty cases.
Ogg’s office filed a brief last month with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a claim from a death row inmate convicted in Harris County that he is intellectually disabled and can’t be executed. The case is still pending.
“We have the responsibility and the opportunity to take justice in this country to a different level ... to bend toward a fairer system, a more effective system that still protects us from people’s bad actions but recognizes the humanity and respect that everyone deserves,” Ogg said earlier this month.
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